Adventures in Goat Cheesing

4 11 2010

After spending four days on a goat farm in Italy, I can honestly only compare it to one other experience of my life: Wine Making.  Six years ago I had the chance to work the harvest on a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina.  I expected to work a few hours, maybe stomp on some grapes, drink wine all day and be merry.  My expectations were quite far from reality.  Wine and cheese making are completely glorified arts.  While the finished products are full of pleasure, most people have no idea how much hard work, manual labour and finesse goes into them.  Fortunately, my friend Kelly and I had the opportunity to “visit” a fantastic goat cheese farm (without doing the crazy work) in exchange for room and board.  Here are some highlights of the trip:

Brent’s (the cheese maker’s) Vegetable Garden: Along the side of Brent’s property,  lies a beautiful vegetable garden.  Let me preface with the fact that we were there in the middle of October so I was shocked to see so much life in the garden.  The vegetables that were growing were plump and succulent. The garden was sprouting everything you can imagine: cherry tomatoes, blossoming zucchini with yellow flowers, green and red peppers, lemon verbena, mint, basil, rosemary, chives, spring onions, cabbage, etc. We also discovered a luscious fig tree bearing juicy red fruit and olive trees with un-ripened green pellets waiting to be pressed into fresh olive oil.  Within 30 minutes of being at the farm, I discovered the beautiful garden and picked a huge bunch of lemon verbena to brew hot tea and a combination of zucchini, sprouting scallions, garlic, pepperoncino, thyme and chives to saute for an afternoon snack.  Gotta love seasonal gardens!

Pizza at a Dive in Small Town Italy:

Brent and his partner invited us out for a local dinner the first night of our stay. We went to this tiny town called Anghiari (with literally 4 restaurants) where they apparently know how to make some serious thin crust pizza.  It was honestly more similar to flatbread than what I know as pizza from Chicago.  It was also Kelly’s first pizza in Italy and she really hit the jackpot. Her order: homemade tomato sauce, creamy buffalo mozzarella, roasted eggplant, fresh pepperoni, gorgonzola, and arugula. It sounds like a lot of ingredients, but let me tell you this pizza stopped conversation.  I watched as Kelly’s eyes rolled back and she literally took a moment for herself.  It put a big smile on my face…having my friend really taste the essence of Italy in one delicious bite.

Selling Cheese at a Local Farmers Market: The next morning we helped Brent at the local Farmer’s Market in the center of a rustic cobble-stoned piazza in a nearby town. He was joined by about 20 other local artisanal farmer’s, each representing their own specific trade.  Consequently, all of the food was absolutely out of this world.  The market was filled with the ingredients of Fall: black and white truffles, firm sheep’s milk cheeses from Sicily, local Sangiovese wines, fantastically crisp pears and apples, green olive oils, almond biscotti, Porchetta, moldy salami’s and of course all of the fresh goat cheeses that we were selling.  Kelly and I took breaks from our cheese stand to buy ingredients for dinner that we were going to cook in the evening. We assisted Brent as he sold his artisanal cheeses, watching wide-eyed as he bargained with old italian women, conversed in the native tongue with a few Dutch and German expats, joked with young cherub italian children as he handed out samples, and bartered with the italian wine maker to trade his cheese for wine. To be behind the booth at a local Italian farmer’s market is an experience I’ll never forget. It was a truly amazing morning.

Best Cappuccino of my life:
During the farmers market, I experienced one of the best hot beverage moments ever. (I say “hot beverage” because I the wine moments I have had on this trip our countless) The cafe itself was adorable.  Not because it had cute tables, couches or a fireplace, but because it was filled with a warm yet excited energy.  The weather was absolutely freezing  outside and even though I was wearing 6 layers and a funny hoodie scarf, I felt chilled to the bone. That didn’t stop locals from being overwhelmingly friendly and seemingly joyful about being alive.  It was the kind of coffee shop you wanted to stand in and people watch all day.  The cappuccino was like the chocolate icing on a delicious red velvet cake.  It was the perfect mixture of dark Italian espresso, hot whole milk and the foamiest foam in the world.  The best part was that it was served with a freakin dark chocolate spoon!  I mean, come on!  My freezing hand-picked up that dark spoon of love and dipped it in right in the foamy coffee deliciousness.  The flavors were like an instant dark chocolate mocha in my mouth.  Kelly and I hung out at this spot for another 15 minutes, lingering over with our perfect cappuccino’s and marveling over the quick movements of the baristas.  Before I left, I told one of them,” multo bene (very good). Este cafe es perfectione!” The barista looked at me stunned and when she finally realized what I was saying she bowed and graciously thanked me for my compliment.  I guess Italian barista’s don’t get that kind of complement from their local customers every day!
A Seasonal Feast on the Farm:
The best part of  knowing how to cook is that it is universally appreciated.  It is my way of giving back.  Kelly and I felt so lucky to be having this experience on the farm that we offered to make dinner the last night for Brent, his partner, and Tierney. The night was filled with intimate stories, enough laughs to make your belly hurt, great food and too much wine. To start, we enjoyed some of the cured meats from the farmers market with crispy apples and fresh figs. Brent picked some huge pieces of fresh sage from his garden and fried them up, seasoned them with crispy salt and served them right out of the pan.  Kelly nearly died over the unique flavor of the fried sage chips.  For dinner we ate a salad of spicy arugula, roasted peppers, capers, anchovies, sliced celery, and shaved goat’s milk cheese from Brent’s farm, with balsamic and olive oil. As a side, I roasted small pieces of baby cauliflower and broccoli with Brent’s homemade chili and garlic oil. For the main course we had some artisanal pasta with some sautéed miniature chanterelle mushrooms, local pork sausage from the market, garlic, olive oil, and white wine. It was a serious feast, if you can imagine. We sat around the table, talked about life for hours and got seriously tipsy. Fantastico!